Michigan Supreme Court Upholds Brighton Mandatory Demolition Ordinance

On April 24th, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against two Brighton, Michigan homeowners in a longstanding legal dispute over Brighton's mandatory demolition ordinance.

In Bonner v City of Brighton, Docket No. 146520, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed an appeal in a municipal case arising from two homeowners' refusal to comply with Brighton's mandatory demolition ordinance.

From the Court's opinion syllabus:

Leon V. and Marilyn E. Bonner brought an action against the city of Brighton in the Livingston Circuit Court, claiming that the city’s order under Brighton Code of Ordinances (BCO) § 18-59 to demolish three unoccupied residential structures on their property violated their procedural and substantive due process rights. BCO § 18-59 states that if a structure is determined unsafe as defined under the standards set forth in BCO § 18-46 and the cost of the repairs would exceed 100 percent of the true cash value of the structure before it was deemed unsafe, the repairs are presumed unreasonable and the structure is presumed to be a public nuisance that may be ordered demolished without providing the owner an option to repair it. Under this provision, the city notified plaintiffs of the structures’ defects and code violations, informed them that the structures had been deemed unsafe and were presumed to be a public nuisance, and ordered them to demolish the structures within 60 days with no option to repair. Plaintiffs appealed this determination under the process set forth in BCO § 18-61 to the city council, which concluded that the buildings were unsafe and unreasonable to repair under BCO § 18-59 and that demolition was required within 60 days of the order. Plaintiffs then filed an independent cause of action in the circuit court, alleging various constitutional claims, and the city thereafter filed its own action in the circuit court to enforce the demolition order. The court, Michael P. Hatty, J., denied the city’s request for a preliminary injunction and granted plaintiffs partial summary disposition, concluding that BCO § 18-59 violated substantive due process on its face by not giving property owners the opportunity to repair their property. The circuit court denied the city’s motion for reconsideration. The Court of Appeals, MARKEY, P.J., and SHAPIRO, J. (MURRAY, J., dissenting), granted the city’s application for leave to appeal and affirmed, holding that BCO § 18-59 violated property owners’ substantive and procedural due process rights. 298 Mich App 693 (2012). The Supreme Court granted the city’s application for leave to appeal. 494 Mich 873 (2013). 

In a unanimous opinion by Justice KELLY, the Supreme Court held

BCO § 18-59 did not constitute an unconstitutional deprivation of substantive due process because the ordinance’s unreasonable-to-repair presumption was reasonably related to the city’s legitimate interest in promoting the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. The ordinance was not an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction on a property owner’s use of his or her property because there were circumstances under which the presumption could be overcome and repairs permitted. Further, the demolition procedures provided property owners with procedural due process by providing the right to appeal an adverse decision to the city council as well as the right to subsequent judicial review. Because plaintiffs did not show that no aggrieved property owners could meaningfully exercise their right to review or that such review was not conducted impartially, they failed to establish that BCO § 18-59, on its face, violated procedural due process rights. 

1. The Court of Appeals erred by failing to separately analyze plaintiffs’ substantive and procedural due process claims. The substantive component of due process protects against the arbitrary exercise of governmental power, whereas the procedural component ensures constitutionally sufficient procedures for the protection of life, liberty, and property interests. Accordingly, whether BCO § 18-59 was facially unconstitutional for denying property owners the opportunity to repair unsafe structures in violation of the right to substantive due process was a distinct issue from whether the ordinance was facially unconstitutional for permitting the demolition of unsafe structures without providing adequate procedural safeguards in violation of the right to procedural due process. 

2. The ordinance did not facially violate property owners’ substantive due process rights. Because property owners do not have a fundamental right to repair a structure municipally deemed unsafe before that structure can be demolished, the government’s interference with that right need only be reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest. BCO § 18-59 was enacted pursuant to the city’s police powers, and its purpose was to abate a public nuisance by requiring repair or demolition of unsafe structures. Nuisance abatement is a legitimate exercise of police power, and demolition is a permissible method of achieving that end. Further, plaintiffs did not show that BCO § 18-59 violated their substantive due process rights as an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction on their property interests given that the unreasonable-to-repair presumption could be overcome by presenting a viable repair plan, evidence from the challenger’s own experts that the repair costs would not exceed 100 percent of the property value, or evidence that the structure subject to demolition has some sort of cultural, historical, familial, or artistic value. The unreasonable-to-repair presumption in BCO § 18-59 was also not arbitrary because it did not represent a total prohibition on a property owner’s opportunity to repair an unsafe structure and it applied uniformly to all nonexempt structures that had repair costs in excess of 100 percent of their value before they became unsafe. 

3. Plaintiffs failed to establish that BCO § 18-59 constituted a facial procedural due process violation. Affording a property owner an option to repair as a matter of right was not required before an unsafe structure could be demolished, and existing procedures in the ordinance comported with due process. Specifically, BCO § 18-52 required the city manager to serve the structure’s owner with written notice of the determination whether the structure at issue can be made safe or whether demolition will ensue and of the owner’s right to appeal this determination to the city council pursuant to BCO § 18-61, and the owner had the right to appeal the city council’s decision to the circuit court pursuant to BCO § 18-63. The city was not required to provide for a reasonable opportunity to repair the unsafe structure in order for the ordinance to pass constitutional scrutiny, and the unreasonableness-to-repair presumption was rebuttable."